Reprise Books

‘Angela’s Ashes’ by Frank McCourt

Growing up: A scene from the movie adaptation

Growing up: A scene from the movie adaptation  


When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all.” In Angela’s Ashes, Irish-American writer Frank McCourt’s moving memoir, he recalls growing up impoverished in Catholic Ireland. “People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

Cacophony of coughs

McCourt was born in the Depression era in Brooklyn, New York, but his parents returned to Limerick, Ireland, when he was four, along with his other siblings — two brothers and a set of twins, and the memory of a beloved dead sister. He wishes they hadn’t come back, for it is wet and cold to begin with, the rain dampening the city and creating a “cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks.” It turns “noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges.” Worse follows.

Frank’s mother, Angela, has little or no money to feed the children since his father, Malachy, drinks whatever he earns. Most days the babies are given water and sugar instead of milk. During a stopover at Grandma’s house, one of the children asks if he could tell Baby Jesus he is hungry. When Grandma tells the family, “there is no room for even one of ye,” the children are helpless with laughter, each repeating, ‘ye, ye’. It is amazing that Frank manages to find humour amid the gruelling poverty.

The Angela of the title is his mother, but Frank perhaps learnt to spin a yarn from his father. As a child, he is mesmerised by tales about Cuchulain who saved Ireland — “I’ll tell you the story when you say the name right. Coo-hoo-lin” — and young Frank obliges his father. Leamy’s National School, which he attends, is a harsh place where the seven masters all have leather straps, canes, blackthorn sticks: “They hit you if you’re late, if you have a leaky nib on your pen, if you laugh, if you talk, and if you don’t know things” and for a whole list of other inabilities. When he is 10, Frank falls sick with typhoid and is lucky to be alive. Back in school after months, Frank is put in the same class as his brother till an essay he writes on ‘Jesus and the weather’ catches the teacher’s eye and he is promoted.

Miserable childhood

At 15 he starts delivering telegrams to help his mother and family; despite the acute hunger, he refuses to accept a tip from an old, lonely woman. Frank was 66 when his “epic of woe” was first published in 1996, winning him many accolades including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was translated into several languages and made him a celebrity overnight. A teacher all his life in New York, he began writing the book after retirement, tapping into his “miserable childhood” at Limerick from where he moved back to America when he was 19.

He wrote in Slate magazine in 2007 that when the book was published in Ireland, he was “denounced from hill, pulpit, and barstool. Certain citizens claimed I had disgraced the fair name of the city of Limerick, that I had attacked the church, that I had despoiled my mother’s name, and that if I returned to Limerick, I would surely be found hanging from a lamppost.” But friend and writer Mary Breasted (Why Should You Doubt Me Now) stood by him, saying, “No one has ever written about poverty or childhood like this.”

At 19, Frank sails away to America on the Irish Oak. As the American coastline appears with lights twinkling, the wireless officer tells him: “Isn’t it a great country altogether?” ’Tis, he replies, which is the title of the second part of his biography about his life as an immigrant in New York.

The third volume, Teacher Man (2005), was on his teaching life. They were, however, not as successful as Angela’s Ashes, which was turned into a film in 1999.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 4:18:30 PM |

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